Does democracy stand a chance?

Published in the Daily Mail (November 28th, 2011)

As I entered Tahrir Square in Cairo one night last week, a  motorbike sped out of the clouds of tear gas towards me. The driver wore a diving mask to protect his eyes, while his friend on the pillion seat had a chequered scarf wrapped round his mouth. Clamped between them, almost slumping off the seat, was a prostrate youth with eyes closed, slipping into unconsciousness and clearly in agony.

As the driver slammed on the brakes, a team of helpers grabbed the young man and carried him to a makeshift field hospital in the corner of the square. All around, people lay on blankets, recovering from inhaling gas fired by Egyptian security forces; others filmed the scenes on mobile phones.

Doctors sprayed the youth’s eyes as he was dumped on a table beside me, fighting for breath. He could not talk, but flapped his hand as if trying to  say something. Suddenly, his body went into horrible spasms. The doctors unzipped his black bomber jacket, turned him on his side and gave him oxygen.

Fifteen minutes later, with bandages strapped to his back where he’d been hit by a rubber bullet, the man was recovering. The bikers, meanwhile, had sped straight back to the frontline. 

Ambulances queued up, waiting to hurtle into the melee down paths cleared by volunteers through the crowds of protesters, supporters and bystanders. Young men, oblivious to the risks, rushed back into battle like ranks of medieval soldiers. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs hawked industrial face masks, flags and food, despite the gas that could be felt in the eyes and throat even well back from where protesters and police were fighting.

Welcome to round two of the Egyptian revolution.

Violence flared up again here ten days ago when police moved in to clear a sit-in by just 200 activists and regain control of Tahrir Square. Their heavy-handed approach led to scuffles, then an escalation in the confrontation in Cairo, followed by clashes in other cities.

The authorities attempted a vicious crackdown that left at least 40 people dead — 22 from bullet wounds, others asphyxiated by gas — and thousands more injured. I spoke to a woman traumatised by fits and hallucinations from the gas; then to a young man who had lost an eye to a bullet.

‘They are shooting people in the eyes on purpose,’ said Rasha Gamal, a final-year medical student who had travelled seven hours from her home to help in a field hospital. ‘If the bullets are small, sometimes we can save the sight.’

Her claims are confirmed by a video showing an army officer being congratulated for shooting a protester in the eyes. In just one Cairo hospital, 49 people were treated for eye injuries in five days.

The new hero of the revolution is a dentist who lost one eye in the original protests in January when people rose up against the 30-year-old regime of President Hosni Mubarak, then was blinded in the other when shot again last weekend. Still he came back to protest — his eye bandaged — and was led into the square by friends.

And in a repeat of one of the sickest aspects of the reprisals meted out in the Arab Spring, health workers treating wounded citizens were targeted. At least one doctor — like Gamal, a final-year medical student — was killed, while a field hospital was gassed.

So was Gamal scared, I asked, as she turned back to tend the next gas victim? ‘No, you could be killed crossing the road. Besides, we have nothing to fear because we know we will win.’

At the height of the battle last week, supporters hung up a huge sign thanking the ‘Heroes of Mohamed Mahmoud Street’, the road off the square where protesters fought to get into the hated Interior Ministry building. Beside the banner dangled an effigy of Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

The scene revealed how the optimism across Egypt after the overthrow of Mubarak descended once again into anger, bloodshed and chaos in the Cairo square, symbolic home not just of Egypt’s uprising but the entire Arab Spring. It reflected how the armed forces, seen as saviours of the revolt nine months ago when they sided with protesters against the President, have become the enemies of the streets.

To many outsiders, it seems extraordinary there has been this explosion of violence just before voting starts today in national elections. This was meant to be the start of the peaceful transition to civilian rule after nearly 60 years of military despotism.

But not to those living there. Last month in London, Hossam Bahgat, one of the most respected human rights campaigners in Egypt, told me. ‘We came so close in February, but missed our window. Our revolution has been arrested.’

Egyptians look enviously to Tunisia, where the self-immolation of a fruit salesman in protest against the authorities sparked the uprising that transformed the region with such astonishing speed: so far, it has made a smooth transition to democracy.

So what went wrong with the revolt in the Arab world’s biggest and most influential nation?

Much of the blame lies with the blundering cabal of elderly officers that make up SCAF, headed by Tantawi, one of Mubarak’s former sidekicks. Such is their incompetence, many Egyptians fear a repeat of 1952, when the army seized power and promised a return to civilian rule, only to install a police state.

Since those heady days early this year, thousands of people have been tried in military courts under the same harsh emergency laws that became notorious in Mubarak’s time. Instead of being repealed, as promised, they have been tightened. Internet bloggers have been jailed and journalists beaten, while security personnel who carried out abuse and torture under the old regime remain at large.

The generals, rejecting offers of help from the international community, devised a 12-round election process of staggering complexity. Then, two weeks ago, they demanded constitutional powers and protection from prosecution for the armed forces, giving rise to fears they were creating a shadow government.

These uniformed buffoons have three aims: to protect their economic interests, since the armed forces still control about a quarter of Egyptian assets ranging from hotels to pasta production; to preserve their immunity from prosecution so they don’t end up behind bars like Mubarak; and to safeguard the army’s future.

After an outcry that united liberals and Islamists, the military offered compromises to their proposed constitutional changes. They proposed further concessions last week after the bloody confrontations: speeding up the contorted electoral process, sacking the government and apologising for the deaths of protesters.

But  the revolution has been reignited. Activists feared the generals did not really want democracy and had to be ousted. ‘They [the generals] made a huge misjudgment,’ said Hossam Bahgat when we met again on Saturday night. ‘People feel robbed after all their sacrifices in recent months.’

The mood in the square felt angrier and more paranoid than it had early in the year. ‘This is a new wave of the revolution,’ said Yara Sallam, a campaigner for women’s rights. ‘It’s more violent on both sides. If it takes many months more, so be it. I am willing to live in a chaotic country with more violence if we have to.

‘The generals thought we would crack, but why should we give up? This spirit will not be broken.’

When you are among them, it is easy to believe these passionate,  courageous people speak for all the 80 million in this country. Yet polls show the military still command respect across the land — although it is falling — and many people just want a return to normality.

The big question, of course, is what happens next?

Protesters see the elections as irrelevant compared with the removal of the generals from government. There is talk of boycotting the vote, threats of protests at polling stations and some candidates have pulled out. ‘Can you imagine an election in Britain where the police are shooting people dead in Trafalgar Square?’ said one leading activist. ‘The election will be a sham.’

But it is going ahead, and the winners look likely to be the Muslim Brotherhood. This well-drilled Islamic political party has waited for this moment since its formation in 1926, which is why its members stood aside from protests last week, portraying themselves as peacemakers.

There are concerns in the West about the Muslim Brotherhood taking power in Egypt — although it remains a big ‘if’, given the convoluted voting system, constitutional complexities and power of the generals.

And it may not be the disaster that is feared. The Brotherhood represents a large strand of opinion here, and even liberals told me they would prefer people they view as highly-conservative Right-wingers to the military after what has happened. As one woman put it: ‘If you want democracy, you have to accept the outcome.’

And such is the shattered state of Egypt after years of kleptocratic dictatorship, followed by the unrest, that diplomats and opponents believe the best way to undermine the Brotherhood may be to hand them the poisoned chalice of governing this blighted nation.

‘If the Islamists win a fair  victory, let them in,’ said Gamal Eid, a lawyer and human rights advocate. ‘They won’t be able to say they’re victims any more. Let them be forced to say what they stand for and show what they will do with the economy.’

With a populace impatient for change, the challenges are immense. Nearly half the young are unemployed in a country where 60 per cent of people are under 24. Meanwhile, Egypt’s debts are soaring and foreign investment has dried up while currency reserves and credit ratings are falling.

Three-quarters of state income is spent servicing the national debt, paying public servants and funding subsidies on food and fuel, leaving little for vital education, health and infrastructure projects.

Tourism, which 15 million Egyptians depend upon, collapsed after the uprising. At the pyramids,  camels once used to ferry tourists are being sold to butchers. In Tahrir Square, one man selling  T-shirts as souvenirs of the revolution told me trade in his tourist shop had crashed 80 per cent.

While millions of Egyptians are more focused on feeding their families than with overthrowing the generals, millions of others reflect the views of those in Tahrir Square, who told me any suffering was endurable to remove the reviled military regime.

Only one thing is certain: this revolution is still in motion — and no one knows how far it has to go, how it will end or how long it will be until the impoverished people in this ancient nation will see their lives improve.

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